Gold, Guns and God: Vol. 4—Deviations in the Dhama
THE BOOK YOU HOLD IN YOUR HANDS is the history of the women and children of New Vrindaban. The story is set in West Virginia, where the New Vrindaban residents were building a tremendous golden shrine for the ISKCON Founder-Acharya His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Thus began the most difficult phase of ISKCON’s history, the years following Prabhupada’s death. Parts of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) were civilized, but New Vrindaban was not one of those places. As Henry Doktorski points out, New Vrindaban modeled itself after the Bronze Age of India, when Lord Krishna walked the earth as a king, sometime between 3100 and 300 BCE.
Since New Vrindaban founder Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada and his followers knew little about the Bronze Age, they defaulted to their own backward notions of how to treat women and children. Thus, their misogynist attitudes won out: women and children were merely chattel—property—and did not deserve any rights. This book explains who these women were, who their children were, and how they fared under the cynical monarchy of Kirtanananda.
Doktorski explains the teachings and attitudes Srila Prabhupada brought with him from his Hindu upbringing in India. Prabhupada was born in 1896 in Kolkata, and educated at Scottish Church College. He lived under British imperialism until India gained independence in 1947, then came to America in 1965. His English dialect, attitudes, and understanding of the world grew out of Victorian England. He was a lifelong devotee of Lord Krishna, and the Bengali saint Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486 to 1534), who many Hindus regard as a recent incarnation of Krishna.
Prabhupada was from the old world, but when he came to America, he fit right in with the hippy counterculture. Kirtanananda was in the first wave of young people to join when Prabhupada opened his center at 26 Second Avenue in the East Village of Manhattan. From there, the organization grew into two main branches, Kirtanananda’s center in West Virginia and the rest of ISKCON. In America, New Vrindaban comprised half of the devotee population, while the rest of the temples across the country made up the other half. New Vrindaban chose to enact their own idea of the Bronze Age, while most of the rest of ISKCON chose to live in the twentieth century.
In the Los Angeles temple where I was during those years, we understood Prabhupada had old world views about women, but we did not live as strict fundamentalists. Women had rights and responsibilities at the Los Angeles temple. At the time, Los Angeles was the headquarters of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT), where women held good jobs. My role models were iconic women like the artist Jadurani, the photographer Nityatripta, the photographer/cinematographer Visakha Dasi, and the women who typeset Prabhupada’s books, Sita and Balai. I remember all my friends as strong, self-confident women. I also remember some women living outside the community who were in abusive marriages, and I remember incidents of misogyny and abuse on Watseka Avenue, as well.
The Los Angeles temple had strict rules about keeping men and women separate, with men in front. I worked for Mukunda Goswami, Prabhupada’s first disciple in New York, in the public affairs department. Around the temple I had to adhere to the temple’s rules, but in the office we didn’t buy it. Everyone just acted normal. The Los Angeles temple is near where I grew up, so living there was familiar for me. The lifestyle was also familiar. I had a car, an apartment, and a full-time job. While most devotees had to cut ties with their families and friends, my father got involved so he could stay in my life.
Our office handled the media, celebrities interested in ISKCON, and produced promotional material for ISKCON. The Los Angeles temple had about three hundred full-time members, and our department had about twenty employees and volunteers over those years. Within our department I felt valued as part of the team. My boss always encouraged me to learn new things and take on more responsibility. Half way through the experience I married a man in the department, and my husband and I published the monthly newspaper, ISKCON World Review.
My life inside the Public Affairs Department allowed me to see the good side of ISKCON and live an idealistic life where I believed ISKCON would improve. We all believed that. One of our goals at the Public Affairs Department was to help ISKCON break away from antiquated views.
I knew ISKCON had a misogynistic aspect, but rarely experienced it. Once in a while a speaker in a temple class expressed anti-woman views, or the lesson for the day from the Srimad-Bhagavatam included misogynistic statements. However, I usually brushed it off as a minority viewpoint that didn’t affect me. If I felt discrimination, I could talk it over with someone I respected, and they would preach to me to ignore it.
I ultimately left ISKCON when I realized how crime-ridden, misogynistic, and racist the organization really was. I also began to notice they were intent on covering up their dark secrets. Over my last three years in ISKCON, the hierarchy came down on me for what we were publishing in the ISKCON World Review. You could say we fought over editorial differences. I thought bringing the secrets out would help. The leaders completely disagreed. As my father observed, they like things just the way they were. One guru proclaimed, “The worst thing about this paper is it’s written by a woman.” Evidence continued to stack up and I realized ISKCON would never change and I decided to leave.
After that, I got a master’s degree doing therapeutic art with juvenile sex offenders confined to a correctional institution. A couple years after I got my degree, I learned of the rampant child abuse, including sexual abuse, of the original cohort of ISKCON children born in the 1960s and 1970s. These were the children who met Prabhupada, put flowers on his feet, and received his blessings. I was shocked to learn of the abuse. I soon realized the ISKCON World Review had played a part in covering up the problem and silencing the victims and their families.
When my memoir Betrayal of the Spirit came out, my publisher wanted a book about the children. I began to listen to their stories and piece together a picture that might be the basis of a book. However, I never wrote that book. Instead I wrote Child of the Cult, with one chapter on a woman who grew up in ISKCON, and chapters on women who grew up in similar groups like Transcendental Meditation, the Unification Church, and Children of God. In my research, I learned many cults abuse their children, and Christian-based groups like Children of God were among the worst. It seemed to me the cult leaders all played from the same handbook, harboring pedophiles and sadists, and giving them access to children.
ISKCON was one of the most abusive groups I studied, especially for their humiliating and violent physical abuse. They were also among the most dangerous for sexual abuse. Several of the eleven zonal gurus who took over after Prabhupada’s death preyed on children. Their access and blatant abuse of children in boarding schools and rural communities like New Vrindaban attracted more pedophiles to join and violate children with impunity. The leadership looked the other way because Kirtanananda Swami and other gurus were part of the problem.
When I studied the children of ISKCON in Los Angeles and wrote Child of the Cult, I had no idea how bad things were for children in New Vrindaban. Any book I would have written about the history of children in ISKCON would have been incomplete without a thorough review of what went on in New Vrindaban. That’s why I’m grateful to Henry Doktorski for writing this book. As a witness to events and diligent researcher and reporter, he has a good grasp of the history. Plus, he inherited a cache of documents from New Vrindaban, which he fully explains in the acknowledgments section at the end of the book. He also conducted interviews in person, by phone, and by email as he was preparing to write this book. Thus, he tells the story through interviews and documents, along with his own memories.
This book captures the essence of the problems at New Vrindaban. Although it’s a haunting history, Doktorski narrates it with a raconteur’s sure command of story. As much as I wanted to, I could not put the book down until I read the whole thing. Although tragic, it’s a story worth telling and worth reading.
I want to express my sympathies to the children who lived and died, or survived the abuses that took place in New Vrindaban. Also to those abused at the old Dallas grammar school, the boys’ boarding schools in Vrindavana and Mayapur, India, and other locations where the organization tried to hide its child abusers. This book is your story, and I pray its honest telling will help confirm the enormity of the sickness in the adults who controlled you as a child. And that having the truth out will help you on the path to healing from the abuses ISKCON inflicted on you.
Former female ISKCON devotee
August 26, 2021
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